Waking, part 22
Disclaimers in "part 0"
Like that hollow place he had almost religiously held for them. The part of his heart that he pushed people away from when they got too close. As if protecting the old hurt would immunize him to later pain, would make it somehow more bearable. Hurt so deeply once, all other hurts could only be pale echoes.
He had been wrong. They could be perfect echoes, or deeper ones.
He couldn't even gather J'onn's body to him. Mars had claimed him, anchored his flesh firmly in its soil. It wasn't content just to take his soul, it had to have all of him.
Bruce Wayne hated Mars.
As he knelt, forehead pressed against J'onn's shoulder, tears running unchecked down his cheeks, he hated Mars with a visceral quality that drove out almost all other thought. How dare they? How could they force such a choice on J'onn - knowing as they must have what J'onn would choose? And damn him for being so noble! The safety and well-being of two worlds in exchange for one man's heart and one Martian's life. A veritable bargain - and damn him anyway for doing the right thing!
Bruce snaked one arm beneath J'onn's head and wrapped the other around J'onn's torso, pulling himself down to the body he could not lift from the Martian bedrock. He buried his face in the crook of J'onn's neck, willing Ace to allow skin to skin contact even though J'onn's flesh was already freezing in the Martian cold. Bruce's tears trailed down J'onn's chest to solidify into icicles as they journeyed.
Why had he been so foolish as to love him? Love always hurt him, in the end. Always. As soon as the fates thought he might flirt with the possibility of happiness - he tightened his grip on J'onn's body, more tears impossibly welling from his eyes. He should go home, he knew, back where he was needed, but somehow he couldn't make himself let go of J'onn's body, couldn't make the tears stop falling. Like before. Like with his parents.
He closed his eyes, and their bodies were there again, oozing blood into the alley - but somehow that image was preferable to the cold green flesh against his cheeks. Yet even the familiar pain of old death couldn't begin to mute the searing of his soul in this moment.
He didn't notice as he wept that the tear icicles now dripping down to the surface of the planet were rising and moving. Even his highly attuned senses did not feel the waterspout that rose around his body, tangling around his chest and legs, until suddenly he was lifted away from J'onn.
"NO!" he protested, struggling futilely against coils of water that yielded only to reform around him.
wasting not? a burbling voice queried. pain water - the rock makes water for loss. like our lost child did.
"You killed him!" Bruce accused, recognizing that this was one of the gods and struggling against it with more determined blows. If the god felt his strikes, it gave no sign.
shhhh. he is mars, and mars is always living. and you- the water shifted its hold on him, petting him awkwardly. the rock loves?
Not a rock, S'luvani, H'ronmeer's voice suddenly intervened. Human.
Bruce twisted against the water, turning so he could at least see J'onn. H'ronmeer was looming over the broken body, its flames licking dangerously close to the corpse. "Stop," Bruce pleaded. "H'ronmeer, for us..." His voice broke, and more tears fell to be drawn into the water god around him. He felt it touching his face, accepting his tears and trying to soothe.
It does love! Another voice remarked, and Bruce thought he recognized it as the voice of the sand. Where is R'sala?
Hhheeerrree, the wind breathed, and Bruce felt a breeze touch his cheeks even through the protective shield of Ace. SSSoooo ssstraaanggge, it commented. Iiit ssseeeemmmss yourrr chiiilllld, Ssss'luuuvvvaannniii, wiiiith iiiitsss waaaaaaterrrr. Buuut iiit iiisss huuuurrrtinnnng, nnnooot heeeeealllllinnnng.
And it is not your child, R'sala? It loves! the sand voice put in, its tone encouraging.
Nnnnnooooo, the wind breathed. Iiiiiitsss llllloooovvvvvve iiiissss ffffiiiirrrrrrre.
H'ronmeer? the sand voice ventured.
Bruce renewed his struggle. "I am not. Your. CHILD!"
The water pulled away from him as if burned, dumping him unceremoniously to the ground - which rose in a wave to cushion his fall. Around him he could hear the gods' voices rising again. What is it? What is it?
Bruce struggled to reach for J'onn again, but the sand encumbered him, swirling up to his knees and trapping him, despite his efforts to step free. "Let me go!" he demanded, frustrated that there was no assailant to throw off, no logic of movement that would free him.
Human. That was H'ronmeer again, still paused over J'onn's body. A flaming tendril reached out - not towards J'onn, but towards Bruce. He could feel its heat, not close enough to singe, but hot enough to be felt through Ace's protective cocoon. For a moment it looked as if H'ronmeer might offer him something, but then the sand spoke.
H'ronmeer withdrew. No. No more than any of those he represents. It leaned down towards J'onn.
Bruce felt a slight give in the sand around his legs and he took the moment. "NO!" he cried, flinging his body forward with all his strength to fall across J'onn's.
H'ronmeer retreated slightly, projecting a sense of bemusement. There is in these humans a spirit, it observed.
YES, a new voice boomed, and Bruce felt an impenetrable shadow loom forward, an absence of light.
K'ergaard! the sand exclaimed. You have returned!
The darkness knelt down, and Bruce felt it raising his face, studying him appraisingly. You know me, human, it murmured, and Bruce recognized loss and heartache, felt new tears falling as the echo of his heart's grief resounded in the dark.
Yes, Bruce confessed.
K'eeeerrrrrgaaaarrrrrd, the wind breathed. Hhhhaaalffff ooooffff mmmmyyyy whhhhoooollllle... The shadow swirled in the touch of the breeze, but did not dissipate.
Yes, R'sala, my whole of love and change. Join with me and feel what I know.
Bruce watched, mesmerized, as the wind tangled through the shadow, causing the darkness to sliver and twist in a dance of loss and love and resolve and change that resonated in his bones.
Iiiii ssssseeeeee nnnnnoooooowwww, the wind gasped, swirling free of the darkness. Aaaaassss iiiiinnnnnffffaaaannnnntssss.
Yes, K'ergaard agreed, and the shadow brushed at Bruce's tears.
EXPLAIN! the sand demanded, and its cry was echoed by the voices of the other gods, hammering at Bruce's skull. He gasped, feeling himself choking, drowning, battered on all sides. He pressed his face against J'onn's flesh, wanting to force his soul from his body, to find the silence that had been J'onn.
And then the cries grew muffled as darkness descended - not the darkness of unconsciouness, but of the Martian god K'ergaard, the one he recognized as loss and resolution and loneliness because it seemed to speak to his soul with its shadow. Be quiet, my siblings, the shadow urged, and I will tell you of my wandering on Earth, and of the spirit there - not our great voice, but akin. New and learning, built not on our dualities but on a wholly other blend of understandings. T'jorsham, my sibling of old wisdom, as you know me to be the inspiration of such wisdom, release our last child.
Bruce started as he felt the ground seem to heave, and the shadow around him lifted him - and J'onn, whom he held so tightly. Suddenly they both were cradled in darkness, hovering over red sands on a cushion of shadow. Around them he could feel the Martian gods quieting, settling down around the darkness - all save for H'ronmeer, who hovered near, its heat the only thing penetrating the shadow.
These humans, K'ergaard began, rocking Bruce and J'onn together within its embrace, they felt me as I walked among them. I did not speak or try to touch their minds as we promised our child we would no longer do, but still they felt me. And I felt there another presence, older and larger than the universe itself - of such stuff as we are.
Murmurs rose among the gods, but in the shadow Bruce could not make them out.
This child- Bruce felt the darkness gently freeing J'onn's body from his grip, sensed rather than saw the way it reverentially folded J'onn's arms over his chest and curled him into its protective embrace. This child, our last, K'ergaard continued, is wiser than we. He sacrifices for them, for love, and offers us a peace until we should rise to join this other presence. But he is also still a child, and understands the universe as a child would.
I touched the presence on Earth, and it reminded me of plans greater than a child could understand. It reminded me of teaching, and of the truth that teaching is impossible - there is only opening the paths of learning. There is strength in offering aid, but there is greater strength in knowing when such aid will only hurt, despite its intentions.
Now Bruce felt himself enfolded more firmly in the shadow, turned outward as if to display to the gods, although he could see nothing but the dark. It is this that our child sacrifices himself for - not for us so much as for the love of what we were too blind to see. See it now.
The darkness did not fade, but Bruce could feel the touches of sand and water and rock and a million other sensations which defied his ability to understand, blended into feelings he could not separate into meaningful terms.
H'ronmeer? K'ergaard said quietly.
Then the darkness was pierced by the dancing of flame, scarcely more than a candle flicker before Bruce's eyes. The flame parted, and Bruce's heart leapt. Within it rested a little silence, tiny, but there. J'onn. He started to reach for it, but his hands were held back.
A moment, K'ergaard admonished. Know what you do. What is demanded of this little soul, should it be severed from the great voice.
A rush of information poured into Bruce's mind, of J'onn, living always as a link to these gods, the means to their understanding of other presences of the universe. Outliving Bruce, outliving all he loved, traveling to other corners of the universe, always ending alone so that his people, his gods, would grow in their wisdom. He felt K'ergaard's restraint loosen, giving him leave to reach forward, to rejoin with J'onn, to bring him back.
He bowed his head, tears coming again as he understood the magnitude of the choice offered him. "I cannot."
Around him he could sense the gasping sighs of a million million voices.
What you cannot, we must, K'ergaard said quietly, and the little silence in front of him began to grow. But your choice is proof of your soul.
The silence had pushed away the flame, was beginning to stretch tendrils forward.
"No," Bruce objected softly, his heart aching.
Sleep now, little human, K'ergaard whispered in his mind. Sleep and forget what you have learned here. It is not for children to know such wisdom.
"But-" Bruce began, but his eyelids were growing heavy, and the silence and darkness eased him to the ground. And as the last vestiges of consciousness escaped him, he felt a familiar caress across his mind and a sudden sense of peace.